Dustin Johnson screwed by bunker rule at 2010 PGA Championship

Posted in What's News by on August 16th, 2010

August 16 — Was it or wasn’t it? After the thousands of spectators vacated the now-infamous patch of earth at Whistling Straits, a post-tourney photo (thanks to Brooks) clearly showed that Dustin Johnson was standing in a bunker on the 72nd hole of the PGA Championship when he incurred that tourney-ending two-stroke penalty for grounding his club.
Johnson never denied grounding his club, which he and almost any Sunday morning hacker knows by osmosis is a definite no-no in a hazard. But, seriously, with fans stomping through the area all week and marshals making no attempt at crowd control, would any golfer naturally assume that a hard-scrabble bit of turf, way outside the ropes, with no rake in sight, was a bunker?
A waste area, maybe, but a sand trap? Not hardly likely.
Rules are rules. Yah, yah, yah. Rules are rules and you can’t pick and choose which ones to follow, or there would be anarchy on the links. Anarchy! Imagine the white-shoe brigade taking “mulligans” instead of announcing they’re hitting “provisionals.” Any rules-abiding duffer knows there’s no such thing as one and they must tell their playing partners about the other, right?
Sarcasm aside, simply from a fairness perspective, golfers can’t decide which prohibitions they’ll abide by and which they won’t. It will be interesting, however, to see if the rules gods change this one or fill in some of those ridiculous Pete Dye-designed bare patches. Stuart Appleby suffered a similar penalty in the 2004 PGA Championship after rules officials originally deemed such places waste areas, and then did a 180 before the event.
Wish I’d thought of it. Hell, even Dye has no idea how many bunkers are on the course he built. As Michael Williams noted, “the only bunkers Pete Dye left off of the course are Archie and Edith.”
As for where Johnson’s ball landed, CBS’ David Feherty said the place looked more like “a manger” than a bunker. Check out what PGA Tour wunderkind Rickie Fowler tweeted would be a “‘bunker’ if it were in whistling straits.”
Clear as sand. And, for sure, Johnson should have memorized the local regs, which the PGA of America posted on bathroom mirrors and everywhere else in the players’ locker room.
Indeed, had he read the rules, he might have recalled the part that made clear that even unraked bunkers outside the ropes that “will likely include numerous footprints, heel prints and tire tracks [!?!]…are part of the game and no free relief will be available from these conditions.” Putting aside the absolute insanity of such a rule, perhaps Johnson would have conferred with officials about his status at that point.
“I guess I should have looked at my rules sheet more closely,” Johnson allowed following his elimination from the playoff in which Martin Kaymer defeated Bubba Watson on the third hole.
Get outta my bunker! No argument there, but — and here’s the thing — he never considered the possibility that he was in a sand trap. How could he have, with people swarming all over the area and STANDING IN THE BUNKER when he took his shot?
“Walking up and seeing my shot, it never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap,” he told Feherty. “”Obviously I know the rules of golf and I can’t ground my club in a bunker….Maybe I should have looked to the rule sheet a little harder.”
CSI: Whistling Straits. Sure, it’s up to the golfer — not his caddie, rules officials, or PGA of America president (and New England golfer) Jim Remy — to make the final determination and take responsibility for it. Johnson did that, and with far more grace than some others might have responded.
But, geez, was it too much to ask the rules official, who was walking with Johnson and Nick Watney for just such a situation, to battle the crowd to get to Johnson and let him know that the spot that was practically in another state, was, in fact, a bunker? Apparently so.
(Watney, by the way, is a cousin of Heidi Watney, on-field reporter for the Boston Red Sox flagship station, NESN. After heading into Sunday with the lead, Watney the golfer shot an 81 and suffered a meltdown similar to the one Johnson experienced at the U.S. Open when the latter carded a final-round 82.)
Twitter frenzy. Depending on who’s opining (Twitter addicts, from LPGA golfer Christina Kim typing her outrage, to 2009 British open champ Stewart Cink joking that Masters patrons will have seats in “right greenside bunker by 18 green,” were in a tweeting frenzy Sunday night and still at it Monday) as to whether Johnson had a brain fart and too bad for him, or was the victim of one in a never-ending roster of  seemingly stoopid golf rules.
Just remember, the next time you’re at your golf course and you hit your tee shot into that sandy spot between the rough and the cart path, or the drought-ridden area just off the fairway that’s more sand than grass. Better not ground your club or the PGA of America rules-holes will assess you a two-shot penalty.
In case you missed the drama of the final round of the PGA Championship, read how Kaymer defeated Watson but the bizarre penalty that dashed Johnson’s playoff hopes stole the spotlight.

(Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. Check her out at the Boston Golf Examiner and National Golf Examiner websites.)

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